Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Shadow of the Scorpion


Neal Asher Shadow of the Scorpion (2008)
Still buzzing from how much I recall having enjoyed The Skinner - which I read back in 2012 - here I am once again slightly underwhelmed by a Neal Asher title, so bugger!

Shadow of the Scorpion turns out to be military science-fiction, probably decent as military science-fiction goes, but military science-fiction nevertheless. It narrates the early years of Ian Cormac, Polity agent and two-fisted protagonist of other novels by Asher, so it probably helps if you've read those other novels and already care about the character, which I haven't and don't.

I gather this one is roughly about war, and the truism of its first casualty being truth, in this case referring to Cormac's memories which have been edited so as to remove the traumatic bits and thus allow him to carry on soldiering. It also occurs to me that some of this might represent an oblique response to the Iraq war, to US coverage of the Iraq war and to what went on at Abu Ghraib, which at least elevates it above the general level of most military science-fiction as I understand it to be, and about which I don't really care enough to investigate for myself, having at least a million better things to do. If that bothers anyone, please feel free to stop reading and piss off. Military science-fiction indeed! You sad fucking wankers!

Ahem - pardon me...

'—experiencing pain only hardens you, desensitises you, was how I thought about it all back then. I now understand that I was just being selfish, like a parent giving an unruly child drugs to calm him down. Pain, whether physical or mental, always serves the purpose of teaching the recipient to avoid it, but more important than that, it can teach said recipient to empathise with the pain of others. We need pain to be human.'

So, as military science-fiction, Shadow of the Scorpion at least has a more elevated purpose than the presumably usual weapons-porn driven fight to liberate freedom from the clutches of a giant space Nazi ingeniously named Obamack Bara or whatever; and Neal Asher certainly knows his way around a sentence, but the problem is that  most of the book
is actually quite boring, at least up until the last couple of chapters. It's well-written and wildly inventive - although nowhere near quite so apeshit as was The Skinner - but somehow I just wasn't feeling it. I've noticed how Asher occasionally has this habit of avoiding too many direct references to people, objects, occurrences or whatever, I suppose so as to avoid the sort of repetition which comes when everything is continually spelled out over and over and over. Unfortunately he seems to push the fine balance just a little too far over the line on occasion resulting in three or four pages passing with only an approximate idea of who or what the fuck they're all talking about, or at least this was how I found it. It's probably significant that I happily kept on reading, regardless, and still got enough out of it to conclude that Shadow of the Scorpion was more in the direction of a pleasure than not.

Monday, 20 April 2015

The Changeling


A.E. van Vogt The Changeling (1950)
Another oddity, and fuck - could they really not have come up with a better cover? Not only does this 1976 printing recycle the art of the New English Library's 1973 edition of The Weapon Makers, but messes it up by use of a reproduction with the quality of something taken on a phone, then adds insult to injury with that font one would purchase by the letter from 1970s hardware stores in order to spell out beware of the dog, please shut gate, or whatever name you had decided to bestow upon your newsagent or corner shop; and you can even see the registration marks on the front, between author and title; and the picture has nothing to do with the novel - although admittedly it was already a bit of a stretch linking it to the subject of The Weapon Makers; and the spine of the book is creeping around onto the front cover. The thing looks and feels like it came out of a Christmas cracker.

Never mind.

The overwhelming sense of familiarity I experienced as I began to read this turns out to result from The Changeling having been human-centipeded together with a few shorter stories to form The Beast, one of van Vogt's fix-up novels. The Beast, from what I can recall, featured Adolf Hitler somehow inhabiting the body of a caveman as leader of a breakaway group of Nazis who fled to the moon after the end of the war. It was better than fucking Iron Sky, but was otherwise something of a dog's dinner, you may be surprised to learn. Here in its pre-op state, The Changeling is a little more palatable, if not necessarily the sort of thing to get anyone running out into the street and jumping up and down with excitement. The story is one of those which screams Philip K. Dick read this, it being the tale of an immortal man who doesn't realise he's immortal because his brain cells completely replace themselves more or less every four years, along with his memory. The opening chapters represent van Vogt at his most arrestingly weird, narrating the tale of our man with that characteristically dreamlike sense of constant motion, and each passing moment examined as a distinct state of mind. The random narrative swerves seem to work well, building atmosphere without going too crazy - as tends to happen when van Vogt gets carried away and it feels like you're reading something that's been pulled out of an inverted top hat in random order.

Unfortunately over the brief course of The Changeling's 120 pages, it becomes a little too easy to forget what he's actually writing about, at least beyond a very general impression. Additionally there would seem to be what looks a lot like a horrendously sexist subtext, as typified by the arrival of the equalised women - women who have taken a special drug which renders them equal to men. The equalised women have become a disgruntled minority, shunned by those unequalised gals who would much rather visit the hairdresser, shop for pretty dresses, or perhaps read the latest issue of Woman's Hat Monthly, and shunned by the men who were quite frankly hoping to enter someone a bit more feminine. The book concludes with some sort of general plea for political equality between the sexes, without actually terming it as equality, so I don't think van Vogt's heart was in entirely the wrong place, but he really should have given the issue a little more thought and working out what he actually wanted to say in the first instance would have been a good start. That said, this aspect of The Changeling now reads somewhat like an old Harry Enfield sketch - Women: Know Your Limits, and the like, so there's probably not much point getting angry about any of it, at least not with recourse to anything stronger than a heavy sigh.

The Changeling is a little underwhelming, but is short and seems mostly comprehensible by van Vogt's standards, and the story definitely works better in this form than chopped into pieces and stirred into The Beast.



Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Golden Compass


Philip Pullman The Golden Compass (1995)
I sometimes have the feeling that as of about a week ago I was the last person on the planet who hadn't actually read this. Even the woman working the till in Nine Lives Books was raving about it, promising me I would love every syllable. She wasn't the first, which is possibly one reason why it's taken me so long. Quite aside from having been promoted as fantasy fiction - something to which I am not automatically well disposed due to an allergy to anything involving dwarves, quests, or magic swords - there was a point at which everyone I knew seemed to have read this thing and was telling me I should give it a go, and this is just your sort of thing often has the opposite of the intended effect with me. I say everyone I knew, although I suppose actually I mean Carl and Eddy, both of whom I love as brothers from other mothers, but it hadn't even been a year since they had both - quite independent of one another - urged me to read Harry Potter, and frankly I wouldn't touch that one with yours, mate. The nail in the coffin was probably Marian, my girlfriend of the time, telling me that I needed to read Philip Pullman. She was very good at giving me things to read, great at telling me what I needed to do, and shit at taking even the remotest interest in anything I myself had read or considered worthwhile, plus her previous recommendation had been Yann Martel's Life of Pi and I'd had to give that one up as a complete waste of time after about twenty pages.

Anyway, time has passed and there it was, so what the fuck I thought; and wow - I can, at long last, see that at least some of the fuss was justified; and by the way - I saw the film, but I couldn't remember the first fucking thing about it, and reading The Golden Compass failed to even jog my memory on that score, so I suppose it must have been fairly shit.

In the event of my not being the last person on the planet to have read this, The Golden Compass is set in its own entirely unique version of our world, technologically and culturally at a tangent to 1920 or thereabouts, except everyone understands quantum theory, world history has obviously taken a quite different course, and everyone has their own daemon - or companion spirit animal for the sake of argument. Talking bears have their own civilisation, and witches fly around on something which may as well be a broomstick. Despite this, it doesn't quite feel like fantasy fiction in so much as it lacks the traditionally sappy quality I associate with most of the genre. This is almost certainly down to the pants-wetting excellence of Pullman's narrative, his rich imagery, elegant, descriptive prose, and perfect sense of timing. It's been a while since I derived quite this much pleasure, or at least this kind of pleasure from the simple process of following words across a series of pages. Such is the power of Pullman's writing that one may not actually notice that this is, technically speaking, children's literature - major clues being witches and talking bears I suppose, even if you hadn't spotted the significance of the main character being a twelve-year old girl; but, like any decent children's literature, it doesn't pander or condescend, and the main themes are such as to render it adult-compatible. Additionally, such is the power of Pullman's writing that I didn't actually notice the story being hung upon a naughty child fleeing from authority, going on a quest, and ending with a massive scrap - normally the sort of stuff that bores me shitless, but The Golden Compass invests such well-trodden paths with fresh verdure, clearly demonstrating that the substance of the tale is in the telling more than the mechanics of plot, on which so many crappier writers tend to fixate.

As for what it's about, I'll probably save that until I've read the other two. Rooting around on the internet, I find that the trilogy as a whole is in some sense an inversion of Milton's Paradise Lost, of which I am generally ignorant, although I recognised certain themes which I assume are expanded in the second and third part. Additionally, I've been dimly aware of His Dark Materials being on the receiving end of criticism as an atheist diatribe, with the term atheism seemingly used in the sense of that stuff which corrupts our kids and makes them listen to devil music, and so on and so forth. I don't yet know what occurs later - maybe Lyra listens to a Slayer album and then injects some marijuanas or something - but it sounds like a hysterical accusation, at least based on this first part of the story. Whilst the forces of evil appear represented here by the Catholic church, or something fairly similar, I had a strong sense of Pullman criticising dogmatic bureaucracy and political power structures in general rather than too many specific articles of faith, and what specific articles of faith are discussed must surely be considered suitable subject for debate, otherwise the critics simply prove Pullman's point about dogma. Anyway, the Archbishop of Canterbury seemed to think His Dark Materials was all right, so there you go...

A book living up to its own hype is a rare thing, but this one does just that; and anyone approaching The Golden Compass whilst mindful of terms like atheist propaganda is probably too stupid to be reading in the first place.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Micronauts


Steve Lyons Micronauts (2002)
I find it kind of depressing that for all the hypothetically good work I've undertaken in the expansion of my own literary horizons, reading Rabelais and Cervantes and Plato and all of those guys as signified by my intermittent sneering along the lines of this or that novel being significantly less sophisticated than the writings of Schopenhauer - despite that I've never actually read the writings of Schopenhauer; for all of this, all it apparently takes is for someone to write a novel about some toy I had as a kid, and I may as well be drooling in line for One Direction tickets.

As a rule I try to avoid tie-in novels on the grounds that they're probably mostly crap, and no-one has yet given me sufficient reason to care about whether or not this is an unnecessarily dismissive position to take. I've done my time. I read four-million Doctor Who novels, and there were a handful I might conceivably read again at some point; but on principal I would prefer to avoid any book that wishes it were a television show, a film, or - God forbid - a fucking console game. Whilst this may seem an unforgivably high-handed attitude, considering all the millions upon millions of books out there which you've never read, and may never find time to read even if you live to be two-hundred, why settle for something which secretly wishes it had been made in another medium? If you don't really enjoy books as books - I dunno - why bother reading at all? Just watch the fucking telly instead. Do what you like.

Nevertheless, here I am because I loved the absolute shit out of my Micronaut action figures and related toys when I was a kid, and because this was written by Steve Lyons. I seems to recall Steve Lyons having chugged out a couple of the better Doctor Who novels - at least amongst the aforementioned few I would consider re-reading at some point - as well as a couple of reasonably side-splitting volumes of something called The Completely Useless Encyclopedia. Sadly, lifting up the internet and having a look inside I notice Lyons has also written Sapphire & Steel audio dramas and novels based on something called Warhammer 40,000, which I assume to be one of those children's computer games, but never mind. Given that my previous review was of a Superman comic, I'm probably in no position to start getting sniffy on the grounds of Micronauts being a lesser work than Schopenhauer's Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung.

Mego's Micronaut toys were originally fictionalised as stars of their own Marvel comic by Bill Mantlo and Michael Golden, and spectacularly so until Michael Golden stopped turning up and the title went somewhat down the toilet. Then someone revived the comic in 2002, or maybe before, probably with everyone drawn looking as though they need to take a shit and with at least one major character raped in him batty by his own dad in issue two, but I never saw the revived version; and then there was this, the first of a trilogy of novels.

The story carries some resemblance to that which appeared in the original Marvel run - specifically some teenager with a scientist father discovering a rift in the fabric of reality through which tiny Micronauts spew forth, followed by generic adventures of the kind involving rebel leaders and evil emperors. This version of the tale has the diminutive explorers from another universe arriving in the town of Angel's Gift, which capitalises on their tourist potential by featuring them as both carnival attraction and inspiration for a series of action figures. This goes some way towards smoothing over the discomfort of anyone who, like myself, feels a little self-conscious as a fully grown man reading a novel about toys I played with as a kid; some way, but maybe not all of the way.

'How? There'll be guards on the door—both sides!'

'The same way I got in here. The obvious way.' I look at him blankly, until he grins and says: 'Don't you have any story books on your world? In the fiction of my galaxy, buildings like this always, always have handy air-conditioning ducts!'

Oh yes. Here we are running down a corridor as though we were on some shit TV show whilst drawing attention to the fact of our running down a corridor. Ha ha.

You see, comedic asides pointing out clichés work better when the narrative doesn't keep on committing said clichés over and over, because this reduces the asides to an excuse for not bothering to tell a proper story.

The Harriers catch me, and I look up into Nova's face as she moves in, her energy wings flaring behind her. I haven't seen her up close before, and I'm surprised at how young she looks. Young and beautiful. Her eyebrows arc gracefully beneath her sprouting purple hair, and her slender nose has an attractive curve—but her eyes are cold, and a cruel sneer twists her pursed lips.

As opposed to an amiable or kindly sneer, I suppose, and young and beautiful is not in itself sufficient for a fucking sentence. I really wish people would stop doing that, splattering around fullstops regardless of syntax in the belief that the resulting pause - which would work just as well with an altogether more grammatical comma - gives whatever is said the gravity of an Orson Welles voice-over, when it actually furthers the impression that the author would rather be writing something other than a novel.

Ice cream fandango. Typewriter summer's day Charlie. Bob. Stegosaurus on heat. And Bob again.

Those aren't fucking sentences either.

To be fair, aside from all of the above, Steve Lyons does a decent job, such as it is. The story is told as a reasonably engaging first person present tense narrative, and there's plenty of evidence of Lyon's ability to hold a sentence together, and to write something which at least does more than simply help you to imagine what it would look like if it were on the telly. The problem is that Lyons' telling seems to be significantly superior to that which is told, which is roughly the usual story of a plucky teenager and tiny aliens running along corridors, and with the local mayor's greed drawing them all into a war which no-one can win, and no amount of references to it all feeling a bit like an episode of Quantum Leap can save the turd from toiletdom. This one really feels like a decent writer struggling to make good with a story he's been given by a committee.

Some of the background material is drawn from earlier comic book incarnations, which is in some way unfortunate because it means I had no idea who Azura Nova is supposed to be, and because it doesn't actually compare that well to the Mantlo and Golden version in which the bulk of clichés seemed better concealed and which was simply a more interesting tale, focussing as it did on the Micronauts and their universe rather than a generically plucky teenager who wishes his dad was less of a dick.

Yeah - I know, the Micronauts novel was probably aimed at teenagers or at least at the emotionally and developmentally teenage, but I still say it could have aimed just a little higher; and being as it didn't, it hasn't inspired me with any interest in reading the second or third part of the trilogy.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Red Son


Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett & some other guys
Superman: Red Son (2003)

...and this is what I love about Mark Millar: just when you think you've had it with the guy and those stories in which he's basically waggling his dong at the local vicar, picking up Red Son for the first time is enough to wash away even the most unpleasant lingering stench - even the athlete's foot strength fetor of The Ultimates.

Red Son rewrites Superman for a world in which the well-worn origin story of escape capsules conveying infants from doomed planets occurs in the Soviet Union rather than the United States, roughly inverting the entire history of the cold war. Whilst Millar's understanding of the Communist USSR as described here probably isn't significantly deeper than it was in his wilfully ludicrous Red Razors strip of years gone by, neither is it precisely the crowing refutation of Socialism one might expect of an American publisher. This politically soft focus works quite nicely in maintaining the fidelity of all the grey areas necessary for the story to work, so we are forever caught between no-one quite being the bad guy, or anything objectively heroic.

With Superman in his corner, Stalin facilitates the spread of Communism across the globe, not so much through force as by means of natural economic and political evolution. That America in its isolation remains the supposed voice of freedom seems irrelevant as it is reduced to a state paralleling that of the former Soviet Union at the point of collapse, as it was in the real world. Without a single slogan fired or any of the gratuitously nasty crap for which Millar has become unfortunately famed, Red Son holds a mirror up to contemporary America and shows us - us seeing as I've been here for nearly five years now - and shows us what the last century felt like for everyone else, or at least for those on the receiving end of our foreign policy.

Millar seems to specialise in narrative details which anyone in their right mind would reject as unworkable - the big, the brassy, and the incredibly stupid; and his talent is to be found in holding everything together in such a way as to conceal just how ridiculous or overambitious it really is. When he gets it right, as he does here, it's a wonder to experience - a perfectly oiled machine taking all sorts of unexpected turns with poetic grace, seemingly the end result of a process of winnowing down all the details to just those which achieve perfection. Red Son falls a little way short of carrying the weight and intense atmosphere of Miller's Dark Knight, but really only a little way.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Tom Strong


Alan Moore, Chris Sprouse, Al Gordon & others
Tom Strong book two (2001)

At the risk of simply repeating whatever it was I said about the previous collection, Tom Strong is Alan Moore doing Supreme properly, as in without the baggage of Rob Liefeld, Image Comics, or the obligation of working with anyone else's playset. It's Moore's own brand mash-up of Superman, Captain Marvel, Doc Savage and others - the square-jawed good guy - starring in stories told just as they were way back when, loopy ideas, bright colours, and very little in the way of cynicism; and it reads as though aimed at children or at least younger teenagers, as I'm sure it is.

This presents a sort of problem in so much as Tom Strong so obviously speaks to an idea of teenagers as I guess Moore would like them to be - or would have liked them to have been fifteen years ago when this came out - rather than to actual teenagers who were probably more likely to have been playing Decapitator XII for Nintari X-Cube, or reading X-Men variants if they were actually reading comics at all. Tom Strong is pitched to a generation of kids who probably couldn't have cared less about Jack Kirby, or any of the hokey golden age team ups and crossovers so deftly parodied within - well, not even parodied exactly because most of it is played absolutely straight. This leaves the narrative light on substance, and yet heavy with material resembling subtext, or at least requiring a fairly thorough knowledge of the history of comics. This would tend to define a fat, old cunt like myself as the target audience, except I'm quite obviously not. The whole therefore comes across as lacking balance in some sense which is quite difficult to identify. The art, writing, and mechanics of how it all fits together are stunning, beautiful, perfection itself - and yet the whole somehow fails to engage, at least for me.

There's probably a clue as to why this should be in Space Family Strong, drawn by Hilary Barta in a style which I assume pays homage to Wally Wood's strips for Mad magazine. The tone is perfect - exaggeration and parody executed with affection which unwittingly and unfortunately throws the admittedly flawless artwork of Sprouse and Gordon into sharp relief as a good idea taking itself just a little bit too seriously. Even when Alan Moore fumbles the ball, he manages to do it in an interesting way and to make it look like it was deliberate.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Adventures of the Wishing Chair


Enid Blyton Adventures of the Wishing Chair (1937)
As a kid I led a sort of double life divided between home and the house of my grandparents. Whilst I've no reason whatsoever to criticise anything my parents did or didn't do, it was my grandparents who - presumably through having more leisure time and a slightly better budget - bought me books and encouraged me to read. My parents also bought me books from time to time, but otherwise generally left to my own devices. Of all the books I recall having read with my grandmother, Adventures of the Wishing Chair looms pretty large, at least equal to Brer Rabbit's a Rascal and six little Sir Prancelot picture books published by Collins. Naturally when I saw a copy in some junk shop in Shipston-on-Stour a few years ago, it was like the memory sherbert equivalent of a Diet Coke-Mentos explosion; and with it even being the same edition, I just couldn't not buy the thing. I'm not really in the habit of reading books aimed quite so squarely at those still half a decade short of being able to form dirty thoughts, but I refuse on principle to own anything purely for the sake of having it, and so...

As an adult, I've never been quite sure what to make of Enid Blyton or her work, and by weird coincidence I spent ten years of my life living across the road from her birthplace, as distinguished by the inevitable blue plaque on the wall above Plough Homecraft, from which I made regular purchase of screws, nails, tools and the like. I am aware of Blyton's oeuvre having accrued an unfortunate posthumous reputation for racist caricature, although I don't specifically recall anything of that sort in any of the books I read, at least nothing worse than the typical reinforcement of certain colonial-era values you find in children's fiction of a particular vintage, Rupert the Bear, Dan Dare, or whatever. This isn't to say that the casual racism didn't exist, only that I don't recall having directly encountered any of it.

Blyton's oeuvre also acquired a reputation for being of a low standard, one book churned out after another at the rate of something like fifty a year - formulaic, unchallenging, and lacking the obvious literary merit of a Winnie the Pooh or Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Whilst there may be some validity to this accusation, it may equally be a case of condemning a horse for not being a cow given Blyton's aims and methods of composition:

I shut my eyes for a few minutes, with my portable typewriter on my knee. I make my mind a blank and wait, and then, as clearly as I would see real children, my characters stand before me in my mind's eye... The first sentence comes straight into my mind, I don't have to think of it. I don't have to think of anything.

And whilst we're rummaging around in Wikipedia:

If I tried to think out or invent the whole book, I could not do it. For one thing, it would bore me and for another, it would lack the verve and the extraordinary touches and surprising ideas that flood out from my imagination.

This presents the startling possibility of Enid Blyton having been the A.E. van Vogt - or even the André Breton - of children's fiction, and it is almost certainly to account for the appeal of Adventures of the Wishing Chair - that dream-like quality of casual surrealism splashed around all over the place without any obvious concessions to established narrative traditions.

The story begins with two very young middle-class children, Mollie and Peter, out on a mission to purchase a birthday present for their mother - all very commendable until, having bought a vase from a peculiar junk shop, they encounter the Wishing Chair. The chair sprouts tiny wings from its legs and will fly you wherever you wish to go, and because the wizard who runs the shop is freaking them out somewhat, they hop into the chair and fly away home. Reading this as a forty-nine-year old man, I must admit I found this blatant act of shoplifting a little weird given that neither the wizard nor his assistant - apparently a pixie - seem particularly malevolent or deserving of having their stock nicked by kids, and yet the chair is repeatedly referred to by Mollie and Peter as our chair from that point onwards.

Next they make friends with a pixie called Chinky - thankfully lacking obvious Asiatic characteristics, although the name still seems a bit of an odd choice to me - and Chinky serves as their intermediary with the realm of fairies, pixies, giants, and other mysterious creatures somehow inhabiting the castles of a world also including planes, buses, and trains to London. As intermediary, it is usually Chinky who presses the proverbial magic button, providing the means of escape from whatever situation the children find themselves in, which in turn most often results from the theft or appropriation of their magical chair - consequences here tending to be those which occur to would-be chair thieves, but not so much to the children themselves; so this is something in the tradition of a fairy tale without quite being one. The children are as isolated in their adventures as they appear to be at home with their play room at the end of the garden, kept far away from the adult world. Their adventures occur mostly as diverting novelties equivalent to play, incurring few serious consequences and requiring minimal agency on their part.

I can see the appeal of Blyton in how she speaks very directly to her intended audience and in their own terms. Adults remain principally remote figures not directly involved with the narrative, aside from a couple of chapters in which Mother briefly becomes yet another threat to Mollie and Peter's continued ownership of the Wishing Chair. The morality of the tales are fairly vague and rudimentary, mostly to do with the basic manners of those whom the children encounter, and with the children themselves held to slightly less rigorous standards.

The point here is, I guess, to engage with the very young audience without it feeling like a lecture, and I suppose this is where the accusations of poor literary merit come from. I can sort of see it, in so much as Adventures of the Wishing Chair commits most of the same crimes currently perpetrated by a certain telly show about a man in a blue box, although that isn't the same as saying that it doesn't do its job, or that it is without purpose of some kind. For all their potential flaws, Mollie and Peter come across as essentially likeable, even noble, and the tales for all that they may lack any overtly educational element, are engrossingly weird without too much to give young minds either a headache or nightmares.

Enid Blyton got children reading, and doubtless got children reading who might not have otherwise bothered. This was at least my mother's verdict, having herself been raised on Enid Blyton, so I guess my later introduction to Adventures of the Wishing Chair was simply a continuation of the family tradition. She knows they were terrible, as she has told me more recently, but loved them regardless. Bums on seats is never an indication of quality, but then neither is mass appeal necessarily an indication of its absence, and on the strength of this one I would say that Enid Blyton did what she set out to do very well.